Like this year’s Week 1 slate? Thank the College Football Playoff – ESPN
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In the daunting, thrilling lineup that is Week 1, what if …
Alabama loses to USC? Whatever. Just win the SEC West. Again.
Notre Dame loses to Texas? It can be overcome — just ask Oklahoma.
USC loses to Alabama? Join the club. A loss to the defending national champs is just a crack in the windshield, hardly a complete wreck.
Congratulations to college football’s Week 1 warriors. You’ve started the season with a win — even if you lose.
This is what the College Football Playoff is all about — strength of schedule — and the teams that have dared to open the season against a marquee opponent have already earned credit in the eyes of the selection committee. A Week 1 win against a ranked opponent will resonate with the committee through November, as they take into account the “entire body of work.” A Week 1 loss simply isn’t the dagger it used to be — who you lost to, where and how now matters to the 13 judges of the sport.
The historic weekend of Sept. 3, which kicks off in 100 days on a loaded Thursday night, features four games between ranked opponents in ESPN.com’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 and for the Power 5 playoff contenders, as long as their league title remains within reach — a factor the committee leans on heavily in the end — so does the top four.
“One of the top criteria we have in our rankings is strength of schedule,” said selection committee member Barry Alvarez, who is also the athletic director of Wisconsin, which will open against LSU at historic Lambeau Field (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). “We look at all of those things. I know when we’re comparing schools or looking at schools, we throw it right up on the screen. Who’d they play, what their opponents’ records were. That’s very important — your quality wins.”
See: Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 (2OT)
Oklahoma’s win at Tennessee last year was a major reason the Sooners were in the playoff, in spite of their loss to Texas. This year, No. 5 Oklahoma will face No. 18 Houston (12 p.m. ET, ABC) in the 2016 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff from NRG Stadium in Houston. The Sooners also face Ohio State two weeks later, on Sept. 17.
“Trying to schedule difficult nonconference teams can give you the upper hand sometimes when all things are equal,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “… Had we not done that, had we not scheduled that way, that might have been a different story. … In the end, when you schedule that way, usually you’re going to be rewarded for it. We’ve got Houston and Ohio State this year. I think that matters to them (the committee), and it should.”
It did last year.
Former committee chair Jeff Long said so last December, when OU’s top-four spot was officially announced.
“You know, their win at Tennessee was impressive,” Long said on Dec. 6, 2015. “That’s a road win early in the season, and again, that had value to the committee. At some point, some people thought that that wasn’t an important win, but at the full body of work, at the end of the season, that’s a very impressive win at Tennessee in front of over 100,000 people.”
There is a caveat, of course — Tennessee went on to have an eight-win regular season and finish No. 23 in the committee’s final top 25. In order for September wins to carry weight with the committee in November, those opponents have to stay ranked.
A win over No. 14 Ole Miss would look outstanding for No. 4 Florida State on Labor Day night, but if the Rebels finish 6-6 and unranked by the committee, it would be somewhat devalued come Selection Day. It still looks better, though, than a win over an FCS or unranked Group of Five team.
That’s why North Carolina is already in trouble — even if the No. 19 Tar Heels beat No. 13 Georgia in their opener (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). For the second straight year, UNC has two FCS opponents on its schedule. Even going undefeated might not be enough to overcome that.
While a Week 1 loss obviously minimizes the margin for error, it doesn’t eliminate anyone in the blockbuster lineup, except for UNC and Houston, the latter of which likely needs to go undefeated for a Group of Five program to be considered. The committee has made it clear, though, that Power 5 teams can recover from a loss.
Ohio State lost at home to a lousy Virginia Tech team in 2014 and won it all. Oregon lost at home that same year to Arizona and was still in a semifinal. Defending national champ Alabama has lost to Ole Miss for two straight seasons — and been in the semifinals both years.
These 13 humans? They’re a forgiving group. Just play somebody.
“We’re lining up and playing a top-10 team in the next season and seasons to come,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “Part of the thing that gives you the confidence to do that is you know that regardless of what happens in that game, if you fare well in the Southeastern Conference in the Western Division and have a chance to win it and go represent the West in Atlanta, you would believe that you’re quite deserving of being in the discussions of the playoff.”
If Auburn opens with a loss to No. 2 Clemson (9 p.m. ET on ESPN)?
“The goal is getting to Atlanta and winning that game,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That pretty much assures you’ll be in the final four.”
If OU loses to Houston? So did Florida State. The Sooners can still win out and win the Big 12, and Houston can go on to win The American again.
If the ACC goes 0-3 against the SEC? Yikes. Clemson or Florida State can still go undefeated — they’ve done it before.
The coaches in the SEC West agree that their division is so difficult its strength of schedule can stand on its own — regardless of what happens in these challenging Week 1 nonconference games.
“Our team realizes that they’re going to be challenged and need to play well at Lambeau Field against a very capable Wisconsin team,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Now as that affects the selection committee, I think there are some advantages to it, but I’ll also say that if a team does well in the SEC and wins the West or plays in the championship, those teams certainly should be in consideration for the playoff.”
Consider it a win-win in Week 1.